The conversations about who is the best at something among sports fans will never end and the conversation about who is the best club team in women’s soccer is no different. But what isn’t up for debate is that given the results in the last two Women’s International Champions Cups the North Carolina Courage needs to be in that conversation.
One of the main arguments by fans in the debate is success against the best, something the Courage has a lot of. The Courage has excelled when playing international opponents, besting both Paris Saint-Germain and Olympique Lyonnais on its way to the 2018 WICC title and beating Manchester City and losing to Lyon on its way to a second-place finish in the 2019 competition.
“It was a fantastic game, two great teams,” NC Courage head coach Paul Riley said following the loss to Lyon. “I think where I leave it with is that we made Lyon play their very best tonight and they were really good today… We battled to the end and it could have gone either way.”
While beating PSG and MCFC is impressive, the games against Lyon are the true tests for the Courage as the French giants are the Courage’s stiffest competition for the title of the best in the world. Lyon is undoubtedly the best team in both France and Europe having won the French league a record 17 times and the UEFA Women’s Champions League a record six times.
The one main argument against the Courage’s success in the WICC being an indication of their place among the world’s best is that for the European clubs it faces in the tournament, it is just the preseason, while for the Courage the tournament falls in the middle of the season.
“It is hard for us to compare [the Courage] because we are not at our best,” Lyon defender and English International Lucy Bronze said. “When we play the best teams in Europe, when we play Wolfsburg and Chelsea and Man City we are at our best… [the Courage] are at their best right now, we still have more to come this season.”
While it is preseason for the European clubs, for the players it is another trophy that they could possibly win this season. For those players, trophies are always important to win, and winning one so early in the season could kick start a season in just the right way.
“It is huge for us,” Bronze said. “I think at Lyon it kind of puts a kink in our armor when we lose trophies and we lose games. People start to think ‘Lyon aren’t as good as we are’ and we want everyone to respect the quality that this team has and the prowess and the winning mentality. This tournament is just as important for us as any other tournament, it is almost like a women’s club world cup, I think that is the way teams here treat it.”
Domestically, the Courage face some of the best players in the world playing in the NWSL, a league which it won last season, including the likes USWNT stars Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe, Julie Ertz, Rose Lavelle and many more, and international superstars such as Australian scoring phenom Sam Kerr and Brazil’s six-time FIFA World Player of the Year/The Best Women’s Player Marta.
Apart from the results on the field, the Courage’s squad is one of the best in the world, featuring seven players who went to the World Cup in 2019, four of which won the competition with the USWNT. Of those four, three played crucial roles in the team’s success with Sam Mewis, Abby Dahlkemper and Crystal Dunn all playing over 450 minutes in the tournament.
Apart from the brilliant internationals, the Courage squad also features players like forwards Lynn Williams and Kristen Hamilton, the latter of which won the NWSL Player of the Month award in July. In the defense, the Courage also has a pair of brilliant full-backs in Merritt Mathias and Jaelene Hinkle who are integral to how the squad plays.
Ultimately it all boils down to one yes or no question, ‘Are the Courage the best women’s club team in the world?’ The short answer to that question is no, that title goes to Lyon, but the Courage is definitely in that bracket just below the best, ready to move up at a moment's notice.
“The intensity [the Courage] have in the games is up there with the best,” Bronze said. “Their quality on the ball is not as high as say Wolfsburg’s but they’ve got way more intensity in pressing and defending. It's the American way.”